SenatiorWill the New York Giants or Jets be blacked out on local TV this season?
MONDAY, 20 SEPTEMBER 2010 12:59
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
On the opening weekend of the 2010 National Football League season, neither the East Rutherford-based New York Giants nor the New York Jets sold out the New Meadowlands Stadium. In theory, neither the Giants- Carolina Panthers game nor the Jets-Baltimore Ravens contest should have been seen in the New York area. On over-the-area, cable (ESPN, NFL Network) or satellite (DirecTV) in a 75-mile radius of New York City. But the game was on television despite the fact that the Giants and Jets did not sell out all of their inventory (seats) to the games.
Apparently the failure to sell club seats and luxury boxes, the really big-ticket items, doesn't count when it comes to National Football League blackout rules. So for TV purposes, the Jets and Giants not being able to sell out seats because they were designated as club seats or luxury boxes gives the two teams some leeway. The two teams New York City area fan base is much better off in terms of TV than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders fan bases. Tampa Bay failed to sell out the team's Tampa stadium during the NFL's opening week in a game against the Cleveland Browns.
The Chargers' home game on Sunday against Jacksonville was blacked out in the San Diego market because the stadium didn't sell out.
The Oakland Raiders home opener against St. Louis was blacked out on September 19 because the team did not sell out the Oakland Coliseum. Oakland's last home game telecast in the San Francisco Bay Area was the opening game of the 2009 season against San Diego.
Other teams will probably not sell out games during the 2010 and that has caught the attention of Congress. Ohio Senator. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has asked the NFL to take a close look at its blackout policy. The Ohio Senator thinks the league should take into consideration that the country has not recovered from the September 2008 economic meltdown and that people cannot afford pricey tickets.
In 2009, there were 22 blackouts across the league. In 2008, there were just five. The NFL will keep the policy in place even though a Senator is asking them to reconsider. This could get nasty at some point this fall if there is a trend of non-sellouts. Congress created the NFL as the league exists today with the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 and Congress can make life miserable for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the 31 owners and the people who run Green Bay.
Exhibit A was the 2007 season final Saturday night game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants when New England was on the verge of a 16-0 season. That game was scheduled to be on the NFL Network with just local broadcasts in New York and Boston. The NFL Network was having problems with carriage with various multiple systems operators (including Time Warner, Cablevision and Charter limiting the NFL Network's reach to 43 million households) which meant a great deal of the country could not see the game.
The non-availability of the game caused a stir on the Hill in Washington and by week's end, the game suddenly appeared on CBS, NBC and the NFL Network. When Congress is motivated, things get done in a bi-partisan manner rapidly without rancor.
Particularly in sports.
The NFL blackout rule has been bounced around for six decades. Television is both a blessing and a curse for sports in the minds of some owners and sports officials. What TV really is for sports is a three-hour infomercial selling the product. In this case, the NFL. But in 1950, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell told his owners to blackout home games to get people to buy tickets for home games instead of in front of the television. Bell's plea to his owners came after the Los Angeles Rams ownership saw a 50-percent drop in attendance in 1949 compared to 1948 after the team signed a deal with the Admiral Television Company in Southern California. Admiral was a maker of televisions and used Rams games to sell TVs not unlike David Signoff who put programs on his NBC radio network in the 1920s to sell RCA radios. By 1951, the NFL was in the courtroom defending its blackout policy. In 1953, Judge Allan K. Grim, upheld the league's blackout policy believing that it was not in violation of anti-trust laws.
The blackout problem resurfaced in 1957, when the NFL Championship Game was blacked out in the host city of Detroit despite being a sellout.
Because of the blackout rule, Chicago football fans in the 1950s hardly ever saw a football game. Chicago was the only two-team city in the NFL with the Bears and Cardinals hosting home games on a weekly basis over the course of the 12 game schedule. If the Cardinals and Bears played one another, then one weekend would be freed up for CBS' WBBM in Chicago to televise a game. Eventually the Bidwill family's Cardinals would play two "home" games a year in other locales such as Minneapolis or Buffalo. The NFL finally solved the "Chicago problem" when Bidwill's Cardinals moved to St. Louis on March 13, 1960. The Bidwills went to St. Louis after receiving $500,000 from the Bears, the NFL, and CBS.
Congress really got involved in sports broadcasting in 1961 and changed the sports landscape of the United States. In its early years of television, post World War II, TV contracts were negotiated locally. In the 1950's, the NFL was under a court-ordered injunction that prevented it from signing a single league-wide contract with a network. Instead, each NFL team had a separate deal with a local television station. For instance in 1960, the New York Giants received $340,000 for their deal, but the Green Bay Packers received $105,000. In 1960, the just established American Football League, not limited by the injunction, pooled the broadcast rights and signed a national network contract with the American Broadcasting Company (which was at the time, a limited TV network trying to make inroads against the established Columbia Broadcasting System and the National Broadcasting Company.
On September 30, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Public Law 87-331, better known as the Sports Broadcasting Act, which exempted professional sports leagues from antitrust scrutiny allowing them to sell television rights on a league-wide basis.
After President Kennedy signed the bill, the NFL pooled its television rights and signed a deal with CBS for 1962 for $4.65 million annually.
The blackout policy was challenged again in 1962 when the Giants hosted Green Bay in the NFL Championship at Yankee Stadium. Judge Edward Weinfeld upheld the NFL position and denied an injunction, which would have forced CBS to televise the game in the New York City area. The blackout policy would remain in effect until 1973, when Congress passed experimental legislation, which was supposed to have lasted until 1976, that stated that any NFL game that was declared a sellout 72 hours prior to kickoff be made available for local TV.
The NFL renewed its contracts with CBS for the regular-season and the championship games in the years 1964 through 1967. Sarnoff was extremely unhappy with the NFL spurning his NBC network and decided to bankroll the American Football League. The TV monies poured in but owners had to use those funds to hire expensive talent like Joe Namath who signed a $427,000 deal with the New York Jets in 1965. The NBC-AFL partnership would eventually force the AFL and NFL to merge, a marriage that had to be approved by Congress. That happened in October 1966. By 1969, television income had risen to $1.6 million per team in the NFL and $900,000 per team in the AFL.
Once the leagues merged, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle began dabbling with the thought of a regular Monday night game. In 1966, CBS did two games. But Rozelle thought a regular series would be a ratings grabber. Both William Paley's CBS and Sarnoff's NBC declined because they had hit Monday night programming, but still ratings challenged ABC signed on in 1969 but with the understanding that Monday Night Football would be more than just a game. It had to be entertainment as well, which is why Howard Cosell and Don Meredith became the stars of the show not the players per se. 1969. Monday Night Football debuted in 1970, with ABC acquiring the rights to televise 13 NFL regular-season Monday night games in 1970, 1971, and 1972/
In 1969, four-year television contracts, under which CBS would televise all NFC games (between 1970-73) and NBC all AFC games (except Monday night games), with a division between the networks of the televising of the Super Bowl and AFC-NFC Pro Bowl games, were signed.
Congress created a major revenue source for the NFL by passing the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 and to this day, both House and Senate members know that. The NFL may be able to fend off Sherrod Brown but what happens if other lawmakers decide this is an issue? If Brown gets addition support on the Hill, Roger Goodell may be explaining why the NFL still needs a blackout rule and how the Giants and Jets haven't sold all of their Meadowlands inventory and yet the league televises Jets and Giants home games in the New York market with less than a full house but San Diego, Oakland and Tampa can't. Things might get nasty later this fall if teams are not selling out but the consumer wants the NFL.
Evan Weiner is an award winning author, radio-TV commentator and speaking on "The Business and Sports of Politics" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org